As the world celebrates International Women’s Day on 8 March, Going Places brings to focus four incredible Malaysian women who are doing amazing work for the causes closest to their hearts.

Words Eris Choo

Heidy Quah

Co-founder, Refuge for the Refugees

On the outside, Heidy Quah seems like your average 24-year-old. She enjoys reading, baking, hiking and hanging out with friends in her spare time. But underneath the bubbly exterior is a resolve as tough as steel.

An accounting and finance graduate, Quah co-founded Refuge for the Refugees (RFTR) when she was just 18 years old. The non-profit organisation seeks to raise awareness on the plight of refugees and provide holistic education for refugee children.

“Our aim is to provide education that is internationally recognised, as well as vocational skills such as music and cooking. We also have social enterprise initiatives,” she explains.

While known for championing education for refugees, Quah’s work covers a wide spectrum, from human trafficking to baby selling. She often works with refugees and migrants – communities that are vulnerable to exploitation due to their status and lack of legal protection.

“Malaysia is not a signatory of the Refugee Convention and Protocol, so refugees in Malaysia have no access to basic education, job opportunities and healthcare. Our organisation strives toward ensuring that they have access to these basic human rights,” she elaborates.

Quah’s involvement in activism was unprecedented. The youngest of three siblings, she describes herself as a timid, soft-spoken child who “had everything decided for her”. Fresh out of secondary school and with six months to go before college started, she volunteered to teach at a refugee school in Kuala Lumpur “for a short bit”. Instead, the experience changed her life.

“Some of these schools were in pretty bad shape. They were low-cost flats that kept 70 to 80 children in tiny, cramped environments. It can take 30 minutes for some of them to walk there and they can get stopped by the authorities. Others have to work to support their families. Still, they came to study. In contrast, when I was in school, I’d beg to skip classes,” she recalls.

Moved by their desire to better themselves, Quah founded RFTR. That was six years ago.

Today, she keeps herself busy on a day-to-day basis, running classes at the schools and managing the organisation’s halfway home, going for meetings to tie up partnerships, attending talks to spread awareness, and taking on detention cases. These are challenging enough on their own, but according to Quah, finding like-minded people with the same drive and passion to work with is much harder.

“People tend to see non-profit work through rose-tinted glasses. We’ve won awards and we’re in the papers, so they think it’s all about classy meetings and photoshoots. The real question is, are you willing to get in on the ground? Drive 40 minutes in rush-hour traffic to meet a refugee who has just lost her baby? When you’re in it, you’re in it for the long run, to see lives change,” she emphasises.

The work can also be dangerous, regularly putting her in contact with criminal elements of society. “Last year, I took on a baby-selling case and got harassed by the syndicate and the clinic involved. I’ve had times where I felt like I was being followed,” she recounts. As a safeguard, she makes the necessary reports to the authorities and takes Muay Thai classes for self-defence.

At other times, it’s about turning a deaf ear and picking the right battles. “There are those who are angry that I’m supporting refugees, despite the fact that I also work to support the local urban poor. Sadly, there are many who like to point fingers but fail to ask, what are we as individuals doing to help our society?” she questions.

Quah’s work has not gone unnoticed. In 2017, she was the sole Malaysian recipient of the Queen’s Young Leaders Award, which honours the contributions of outstanding youths across the Commonwealth, bestowed by Queen Elizabeth II herself.

“It was incredibly humbling to meet her. It reminded me how far we’ve come as an organisation and how thankful I am for the journey,” she shares, adding that it has also given RFTR a boost in credibility.

Quah’s biggest joy is when she sees her students doing well in life. “We have students who are studying medicine in the United States and those who have gotten full scholarships to study in private universities,” she says. She is proudest to see that her efforts have come full circle, as some of her ex-students now run their own tuition classes and give back to their communities.

While awareness on refugees has improved over the years, Quah says that many Malaysians are still ignorant about their plight.

“I’ve had people asking if refugees exist in Malaysia, because they think that refugees should be living in big blue tents on empty lands, like what is shown on TV,” she points out. “Refugees live amongst you and me. A lack of understanding means a lack of support. The heart of education is the education of the heart, which is why we work so hard to raise awareness.”

Her advice for others who seek to walk her path is to be prepared for a lonely journey. “One’s youth should not be used as an excuse for not making a difference. I would laugh and say that I don’t have any talents, but I know I have a kind heart and the ability to love, and it has gotten me this far. It’s the heart and not the art of doing things.

“When you understand your privilege, know your identity and your worth, there’s so much more to give. After all, you can’t give out of an empty well,” she quips.